Sport & Skullduggery at Chichén Itzá

Tzompantli : : Skull Rack

Tzompantli : : Skull Rack

September 25th, 2020

Today we’re visiting the Grand Ball Court of Chichén Itzá, located at the northwest edge of the site. Just outside the court we find the tzompantli, loosely translated as “skull rack.” Here, the skulls are carved in stone, placed on vertical sticks, a macabre sight in the light of day. In my research of the Maya, I’ve also come across reference to racks of real skulls, hung horizontally and displayed in rows.

I haven’t touched on the gruesome aspects of Mayan culture and I won’t go into too much depth, but these depictions in stone and bone portray the Maya’s prolific practice of human sacrifice. They documented numerous techniques in writing and illustration — among them, group arrow dances with subjects tied to poles and the act of tossing people into deep cenotes from which there was no escape. This would explain at least some of the human remains found at the bottom of the region’s cenotes.

Sport was also an occasion for sacrifice, with losing players and even team captains losing their lives after losing the game. These stone carvings surely served as a reminder on the way to the ball court.

The Grand Ball Court

The Grand Ball Court

Chichén Itzá’s Grand Ball Court is by far the largest among Mayan sites in the region, including those found at Ek Balam and Cobá. The court here is stately — even from a distance — with high walls and an imposing presence.

View through the center of the Grand Ball Court

View through the center of the Grand Ball Court

Walking through the middle of the court, the size is immense. Measuring 150 feet/45 meters wide and 460 feet/140 meters long, the court is larger than an American football field.

A game called ulama or pelota was played here with a rubber ball that weighed 7-9 pounds/3-4 kgs. The game was played with the hips and torso, with a unique “hip-check” kind of ball pass to the other players.

Side wall of the Grand Ball Court

Side wall of the Grand Ball Court

The side walls here are different from other courts in the region — vertical really, with just a small sloped band along the bottom. Compare these walls to those found at courts in Ek Balam and Cobá, and you can imagine that players on Chichén Itzá’s court would have been very experienced and good at the game. A stone hoop hangs high on each wall and one objective of the game was likely bouncing the ball through the hoops. Looking at the height, it seems impossible. Games supposedly lasted for days and maybe this challenge was the reason why.

Temple of the Bearded Man at the north end of the Grand Ball Court

Temple of the Bearded Man at the north end of the Grand Ball Court

The Temple of the Bearded Man sits at the north end, named for a carved figure found inside of it. The ruling king or dignitaries probably enjoyed this special throne from which to watch the game.

The acoustics here are notable as well. A person standing in the Temple of the Bearded Man can hear the whisper of a person at the opposite end of the field. There’s also a “fluttering echo” created by the two vertical walls facing one another. There is speculation that these are design features of the site, not after effects of construction.

Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars

Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars

Next to the Grand Ball Court and tzompantli, the Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars sits as a short platform decorated with elaborate carvings of the two animals eating human hearts. The jaguar figure is carved on the stones flanking the front staircase. The jaguar was an important animal in Mayan culture and there’s evidence that the Maya practiced skull deformation to mimic the shape of the jaguar’s head and sloped profile from nose to forehead.

Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars

Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars

Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars

Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars

Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars

Temple of the Eagles and the Jaguars

With so many skulls and references to human sacrifice, it seems the Maya people may have revered death as much as they revered life. The transition between was made in honor of the gods, celebrated with human heads and hearts, perhaps the only way to reach eternal life among the gods themselves … but surely still terrifying for the chosen ones or the losers of the game.

Tzompantli : : Skull Rack

Tzompantli : : Skull Rack

Tzompantli : : Skull Rack

Tzompantli : : Skull Rack

Tomorrow, we’ll take a quick look at one more structure of Chichén Itzá before we board the magic carpet, depart the Yucatán and head for our next destination. After all our studious inspection of Maya history and civilization, let’s go west across the Pacific to take a break and enjoy a sweet confection of the season.

Until then,
Kelly

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.

13 comments

  • I’m rapidly going off the idea of being a Mayan! 😦 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  • I remember unearthing some of the gruesome activities of the ancient Maya. Amazingly advanced in some ways, but also kinda creepy. The whole site of Chichen Itza is really quite extraordinary. Wonderful photos Kelly.

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  • I didn’t know about the human sacrifice practices, but now that I do, I wonder even more how that began and was perpetuated. So sad to lose people if they lose a game! I can’t imagine. Your photos are rich resources for readers — that skull wall is fascinating and speaks volumes, even if I don’t understand a word of it!

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  • What a great read to start the weekend. Thanks Kelly. 😊

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  • I like the way you show details and explain their meaning. Certainly we are shocked by the brutality and the use of killing, which is so contradictory to our morals. But how could a civilization last and develop if its population were to be petrified by terror. I come to think that either their mentality was otherwise conditioned, with a greater acceptance of death, or that brutal acts were less widespread than their iconography would lead us to believe.
    Thanks for this great exploration of the Mayan civilization and our own minds.

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    • I completely agree with your thought that the Maya had a greater acceptance of death, and perhaps at the same time a greater value of the afterlife than we can understand. In my opinion, this can be the only way that a civilization can so readily practice human sacrifice. Otherwise people would have been fleeing all the time out of fear for their lives. I wish I knew more. I may keep researching! Excellent points, Lookoom. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  • This is such a grim center court ☹️ wonder what the losing team used to feel like as the game would near the ending moments. Or were they chosen to die, like the gladiators? Were they convicts who were trained for the game? If not, why did anyone choose to get trained and excel in this game?

    I have this habit of trying to imagine and picture things in my mind to be able to understand historic events a bit more, and right now my mind is filed with very distributing pictures …

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    • All great questions! Dave (another reader) also mentioned the gladiators and the similarities with this Mayan ball game. When walking through the court, I was so focused on its size and construction that I never really thought of it as a place of sadness and fear but surely it must have been. I really think the Maya valued the afterlife as much as life itself, and were comfortable with their own mortality. There would be no other way to willingly train and play this game. Fascinating to ponder! But disturbing as well. Thanks for your comment!

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  • Pure speculation: I wonder if there are parallels between the players on this court and the gladiators in Rome. Perhaps they too were from conquered tribes, at risk of death even if they didn’t play. Perhaps they too had “free” players that did it for the glory and risk of the games. (Especially if their alternative was toiling in some tedious, nasty, soul-crushing job.) Or maybe they were taught to believe it was a fast track to Mayan heaven. Extremists do weird things…

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    • Great thoughts, Dave. Thanks for sharing them here. Personally, I do think there’s validity in your thought about a “fast track to Mayan heaven.” I keep coming to the conclusion that for the Maya to be so comfortable with death, they had to have believed the afterlife was the ultimate attainment or state of life. It’s fascinating to think about and compare to other civilizations with similar practices, as you’ve mentioned. Thanks again!

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